L.A. Lawyers and Litigants Crying Foul Over In-Person Hearings During the COVID Crisis

Even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the wheels of the Los Angeles County Superior Court system continue to grind.

Whether that access to justice is truly justifiable for the people who must appear or work inside those courtrooms is another matter.

A recent Los Angeles Times article examined the plight of people required to appear at hearings and the attorneys and courtroom staff who stand among them.

The court system has seen a high-level activity from people seeking to extend their eviction moratoriums in addition to regular trials.

According to the Times:

Since March, L.A. Superior Court has taken steps to significantly cut down foot traffic, and officials estimate 65% fewer people circulate in the system’s 38 courthouses than before the pandemic. About 4,500 people appear remotely each day for hearings, and Ann Donlan, a court spokeswoman, said that all courtrooms — about 600 across the county — have the capability to conduct remote proceedings.

“But many in-person hearings continue, especially in criminal courts, which held nearly 70 jury trials in the final four months of 2020. Sometimes, the parties in a case insist on an in-person hearing. Some litigants lack internet or phone access, or don’t know a remote option is available. And unless a litigant has taken the steps to secure a waiver from the court, each remote appearance comes at a cost: $15 for audio and $23 for video.”

The Times reports that tenants have only five court days to respond to legal notices and most lack legal help. Attorneys working in the court system told the Times that some judges are requiring in-person proceeding, increasing the health risk to lawyers, clients and staff.

Is the Court System Doing Enough?

Local legal advocates told the Times that the court system is not doing enough to safeguard everyone.

“Every single day the courts are going through procedures without precautions to keep people safe and holding proceedings that result in people getting kicked out onto the street. It’s a public health disaster,” said Adam Murray, the executive director of Inner City Law Center. “If you walk into eviction or traffic courtrooms, you are not seeing wealthy or middle-income people. It’s poor people who have to go in and adjudicate their cases in person.”

Courthouse staff and legal groups have asked for less foot traffic, temperature checks and other precautions, but have yet to receive them. They suggest that limiting in-person hearings for situations such as traffic citations could help limit risks. Additionally, it has been reported that some witnesses have testified without masks.

The Times reports that 445 judges and court staff have tested positive. Three staffers died in January after testing positive for COVID-19, making the need for action even more acute.